2021 Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne Essay Prize: 1st place winner.
This place is both a garden and a ruin. What is preserved of the human past is, at a glance, part of the landscape: acid-green pears partially picked apart by birds, boughs bent under the weight of sunset-coloured apricots, small hard apples dangling over a pockmarked street. From these, people gather a bounty and return to their homes in the city to make Red Zone Pie.
I look at the path before me—edges gnawed by weeds, lines wobbling like a child’s drawing. To go forwards, I’ll need first to go back.
I come here for the first time on the tenth anniversary of the Canterbury quake. In the taxi, voices filtering through the dust of the radio share stories of loss and change, coming back and back to “resilience” like a tongue to a sore tooth. But these memories are not my memories, this pain not my pain—I am just the neighbour looking over the fence.
In the place I exit the taxi, the fences are few. I walk around the road barrier to gaze at what looks like a vast grassy parkland, interspersed with trees and criss-crossed with concrete. There are no buildings in sight. Yet ten years ago, this was suburbia, a string of busy residential neighbourhoods—Bexley, Avondale, Dallington, and Burwood—flanking the eastern side of Christchurch, with the Ōtākaro Avon River winding through them. When the city shook on February 11th 2011, the ground beneath them liquified—the memory of water quickly suffusing soft underground sands. Buildings cracked and crumbled. The most damaged areas became known as the Red Zone, with 8,000 houses deemed unliveable and eventually bought back by the Crown to be dismantled, the land sown over.
Today the Red Zone today is viridescent and shining under an implacable sun. You have to look hard to find traces of the families, the communities, the lives that were once rooted here. I spot a stray blue peg lying in the shadow of a squat white-flowered hebe, the bleached wooden handle of a garden tool almost grown over, a small line of bricks pressed into the earth under tiny fists of purple clover, ruffs of tawny grass. Butterflies stir as I walk.
Six different categories of terrain were established by the planners for regrowing the Red Zone: grassland, riparian buffer area, dune, estuarine edge, wet area, and grazing area. I make a guess that I am walking in grassland. Yet the landscape resists cohesion—the scattered trees a strange mix of sizes and origins and the earth beneath my feet seeming unsure what it wants to support or to strangle, with gorse seedlings spiking up occasionally between the wildflowers. Ahead is a huddle of blushing rose bushes, further on, a cabbage tree casting fierce shadows over one lonely hydrangea.In some places, these plantings map the outline of a private garden, the house simply vanished from its centre, and I am standing in one of these when I spot two people walking up ahead. They are white, middle-aged, and wearing sensible shoes. I watch, frozen, as muscle memory turns them around a corner towards me. Am I standing in their former home?
People do return here, coming to hold vigil with loss. Eight years after the quakes, one elderly resident was still returning twice a day to pull weeds in what used to be her front yard and to visit the tree under which her dog was buried and another dedicated to her father.[i] I imagine her standing where the open air is like a slap in the face—a whole life history scooped out of the place between the river and the hills. Over there, her mother was born, she says. Over here, neighbours who are now missing, or worse. Haunting happens in the moments when home becomes unfamiliar,[ii] and so an empty meadow can still hold a chill.
I remind myself I am allowed to be here. The area is designated for public recreation now— mountain biking, dog-walking, community gardening. I watch the folks ahead of me stroll onwards at a pace that seems to be set for exercise rather than ritual, and either way I am glad to be ignored as I tramp through someone’s backyard… living room… bedroom… the slow agencies of leaf and root working upon them.
This place is made of long green threads that stretch both backwards and forwards in time. Its gardening history dates back to 1850, when the area was the site of the city’s first botanical garden and first plant nursery.[iii] William “Cabbage” Wilson built a legacy on market gardening in the Avon Loop before becoming the city’s first mayor. But progress wins more votes than produce. Bulldozers came to remove the fields and orchards to make way for houses. Then after the quake, bulldozers came to remove the houses and make way for fields again. One poet conveys the satisfaction found in this cyclicity: “Peel back the concrete,” he writes, “let the garden city reclaim its name”.[iv] But it is less a peeling back and more a growing over that is happening now—and it is hard to tell what is continuity and what is rupture when wild lettuce sprouts alongside volunteer potatoes and “parsley rises between pavement cracks”,[v] when dandelions creep across the grey smack of roads and daisies infest the potholes. Another local poet reflects on
How quickly weeds take over
when not kept in check by each day’s quota
of hurrying feet. This is a glimpse
of what the earth will be after people.
Then the weeds will have
no names, and no need of names.[vi]
Imagination clearly works in two directions in this poem and in this place. There are memories here not only of the past but also of the future: a question of things to come dogged by an eerie post-human-ness that strikes against the tinder of dystopian books and movies littering my mind and lights right up. I crawl across the surface of these visions under a cloudless sky, accompanied only by the occasional dark arrow of a hunting bird. Sometimes, at the intersections of streets through the grassland, a spew of wires erupts from the gravel-clogged tarmac. Sometimes animal scat stipples the grass.Under my small backpack, a patch of sweat.
In the absence of traffic and people, I mark time by my own internal rhythms of hunger and thirst, and soon my mouth feels thick in the dry air. Ahead I spot a fruit tree, tangled up with ivy. I examine its offerings carefully.
To forage, you must put your own body in contact with the world. Your touch and your tongue are needed to work out if the fruit is ripe. There should be no yanking, no squeezing or pulling. No violence. Just a gentle touch to see if the fruit will fall. And what does ripeness taste like? Satisfaction. Surrender. Something complete.
In the early years after the 2011 quake, ‘red-zoning’ became a synonym for foraging. People went out with baskets and bags, in groups or alone—past barriers, through silt. It was unsanctioned at first, but authorities seemed relaxed about it, issuing only occasional, half-hearted warnings about construction hazards and private property. At this time, most of the houses remained, broken and abandoned. But some people remained too—the “stayers”, who refused the partial buyouts the government offered to those without insurance (later deemed in court, after a long fight, to have been discriminatory). These people watched the street signs being taken down around them. They ceased to exist to the postal service. They heard the machinery start up. Meanwhile foragers from “outside” made up their own protocols for excursions to the Red Zone. One blogger described a plan: avoid homes where people were still living, take bottled fruit “in case an opportunity arose to barter or thank residents”, and make a swift retreat if asked. But when she went, she found “there was nobody around”. “The only person who walked past gave us a thumbs up as we dug potatoes.”[vii] Another forager advised looking to the ground. Fruit that has fallen can still be washed and consumed, and even things that aren’t “tasty” can be made useful in cooking.[viii]
In this context, foraging betrays an urgent form of love, a compulsion to reconnect with nature after the earth itself has tried to shake you off. And to be rewarded. These people went home with full baskets: ingredients for “red zone fruit pies and red zone jam”.[ix] The apple I select is small and tart and good, but I wonder what these fruits taste like to a Cantabrian, to a quake refugee, to someone who still feels the ghosts shivering up from the ground when they approach these trees—planted, tended, abandoned.
This tree, though, is known and numbered. It is one of 30,000 trees and shrubs across the Red Zone that were catalogued by CERA, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority. These were the ones that met the criteria for preservation when the bulldozers moved in: native and introduced trees and bushes over a particular height. Many leant on walls or fences that were taken apart around them. 1,763 of the catalogued trees are fruit and nut trees.
Foraging became accepted, eventually, as an antidote to waste when so much could not be recovered. Community groups formed to clear, sow, and host foraging walks, to organise food-sharing networks and make local food more accessible. New forms of civic ecology thrive after disaster.[x] In Kaiapoi, one group of locals planted a food forest, starting with just 17 trees relocated from other Red Zone gardens.[xi] Over time, more than 21,000 trees and plants have been donated and slotted into a design intended to mimic “little living rooms” that will draw people in to gather and eat together. The Christchurch City Council got on board in 2015, grafting these and a wide range of other community projects onto the vision of an “edible garden city”. In 2020, they launched an online urban food foraging map.
When I open the map on my phone, I find myself a small dot set against a grey map. A forest of neon dots appears around my dot as I zoom out—pink, purple, red, brown, and the occasional green and yellow, each colour marking different fruit trees. There are more than 500 apple trees here, 340 peach trees and 246 feijoas. There are less common treasures too: quince, honey locust, Irish strawberry trees. I contemplate the scraggly tree before me and the vista ahead. “Stick to foraging etiquette, to ensure there’s plenty to go around” the public were told when the app launched.[xii] Butthere have been troubling reports of late. Contractors have been warned to look out for people stripping fruit trees for “commercial purposes”.[xiii] As I take my second apple, I think of invisible others. I think of their hunger.
Everything new is old. With fences removed, I watch a place long patchworked by colonial property law being stitched together by troops of hopeful bees. Bumblebees, honeybees. These are not native, and yet they pollinate both native plants and introduced ones. They will not mind if the land transforms. They will help the land transform. But how far back (or forward) are we going? The roots of the dream of an edible city go back further than the “Garden City”, further than the efforts of settler-colonists to build an English version of paradise with seeds carried on salt-battered ships and sown on purchased and stolen land. The history of food gathering on the Canterbury plains goes back to the 17th century, at least—older than apple trees, sturdier than chestnuts. Then, Ngāi Tahu, preceded by Ngāti Māmoe and Waitaha, moved in seasonal rhythms across this land, harvesting from the plentiful resources of wetlands, grasslands, and podocarp forests.[xiv] They gathered in summer to store for winter.
The majority of the region remains bound up in private property today, but the Red Zone is owned by the Crown and administered by the Council. In 2020, Regenerate Christchurch (a Crown and Council collaboration) released a major plan for the Ōtākaro Avon River Corridor—an area of land that is four times the size of London’s Hyde Park. This colourful document holds mahinga kai at its core—a Māori approach to natural resources and food-gathering that is seasonal, sustainable, holistic, that is embedded in kaitiakitanga and that promotes a sense of identity and history, connection to place. This forms part of the vision of a lush native habitat,[xv] with 80% of the “Green Spine” designated for “restoration”.
Restoration is a word that is, again, going both backwards and forwards.[xvi] It goes back further than the quake. It addresses other layers of trauma, disruption, and slow violence: deforestation, colonial settlement, pollution, and urban development—each contributing to an “introduced plant desert”[xvii] that fails to support wildlife. It goes forward further than you’d think, too—further and wider—hoping to lure kererū, tūī, korimako, pīwakawaka to the new forest, hoping for sightings of rare crakes and bitterns to increase and for the ghostly shape of the kōtuku to become familiar by the water.[xviii]
In many ways, along with a recognition of the wisdom of Mātauranga Māori, these plans reflect a bureaucratic reckoning with extraordinary community efforts. With so much land now returned to the commons, it can all be formalised, scaled up. Yet it is clear, in a real sense, that plans continue to progress only through collaboration between the Council and numerous community groups and charitable trusts. The Eco-action Nursery Trust, for example, has spent five years involving students from 16 different schools in raising seeds sourced from the local Travis wetlands (in Burwood). From this work, 22,000 native plants, of 20 different species, have already been planted. Pictures of their planting days have a comfortable Kiwi feel—a serious man in a blue flannel shirt, a little girl in a pink tutu, a windblown teenager in a high-vis vest with one foot on a spade.[xix] Rotary, in turn, is shepherding plans for a “Forest of Peace and Remembrance” around the Dallington Landing; they are kickstarting it with 40,000 native plants and Conservation Volunteers NZ and currently rallying people for mass planting days.[xx]
It is also clear that the fate of this eco-system is not entirely in human hands. When the area was abandoned, many native seedlings sprang forth on their own, in and around the broken human terrain. When contractors came later to clear the structures, most of these were scraped clear. But enough were left—in plots managed and monitored by eager volunteers and eschewing lawnmowing services—to show that forests wanted to regrow. Cabbage trees, ribbonwood, kōwhai, akeake, coprosmas, and pittosporum grew, nature volunteering on its own terms. A native mature podocarp forest will produce nectar and fleshy fruits, which will elicit an army of birds to volunteer too… to eat, pollinate, and disperse seeds. The ecosystem reproducing itself.
So where is Red Zone Pie in this vision? What will become of the fruit trees saved from destruction, carefully catalogued and mapped? Regenerate Christchurch’s plan admits only briefly that “exotic” trees “contribute to historic landscape character” in the region.[xxi] The term “exotic” is a wonderful form of linguistic redress in itself though. Depictions of the New Zealand bush were once sent home to Europe with this label attached – the “exotic” South Pacific punga, rātā, and kōwhai, rendered in ink and oil through a slant white gaze. Now it is the little English apple tree, the merry European plum, that are given this title. Once the centre of the world, they now make way. Still, there will be no ripping and tearing, no bulldozers brought in. These introduced trees will be kept as the rest seed around them—providing structure and shelter for the future to grow.
Foraging connects us to many things beyond ourselves. It speaks of the need “to escape, to explore, to discover, to collect, to heal, and to provide for ourselves and our loved ones” as Johanna Knox writes in a lush volume of foraging advice specific to Aotearoa.[xxii] But she also reminds us that we each carry a different legacy of gathering knowledge.[xxiii] Pākehā foraging is not the same as the practice of mahinga kai. The ‘red-zoning’ of Christchurch residents is not the same as my brief summer samplings. Gathering traditions grow and adapt—in directions shaped by disaster, development, privilege, bureacracy, and desire —as history shakes us up, brings us together.
And how many different versions of Red Zone Pie can there be? Fruit is born fresh every season, growing fat on sunlight, transient rain, and last season’s decay. Hands and mouths take it apart. We make what we can of what is left. We make something new with it.
To go forwards, I have gone backwards through a garden (a ruin, a meadow, a memorial) that fed me one hot day in February. But imagine it in twenty or thirty years—your basket on your hip, pushing through the dappled shadows and reaching branches. There! Behind the exultant fans of a tree fern: a flash of orange-pink. You draw closer. Yes, here is a crooked hardwood, squatting in a patch of sun. Ripe peaches hang from its old grey arms. In your hands, they are like small animals, soft and warm. You add some to your basket, which is already half full with a lining of kawakawa, piles of plump orange poroporo, karamū berries small and shining, the pollocked leaves of horopito, a glass jar of harakeke seeds, and one juicy growing-shoot from the heart of tī kōuka. Beneath your feet, the strata of memory. Above, the green roof of the future. Nearby, a tūī stirs. He pauses to eye you, dark and formal, before moving on to his own foraging, tree to tree, in gloss and abundance. Your basket overflows. And you head home, through the birdsong, ready for the making of a different sort of Red Zone Pie.
[i] Hayward, M. (2019). ‘’Quake Outcasts’ finally paid for uninsured red-zoned homes’, Stuff News. Available at: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/110542920/quake-outcasts-finally-paid-for-uninsured-red-zoned-homes
[ix] Matt Morris, quoted in Gates, C. (2015). ‘Fruit foraging in Christchurch’s red zone’, Stuff News. Available at: https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/food-wine/food-news/67690529/fruit-foraging-in-christchurchs-red-zone
[x] Tidball, K.G. (2013). ‘Urgent Biophilia: Human-Nature Interactions in Red Zone Recovery and Resilience’, in Greening in the Red Zone, eds. Keith C Tidball and Mariannne E Krasy. Dodrecht: Spring. P53-71.
[xi] Wong, M.L. (2020). ‘The community that turned their red zone into a food forest’, Stuff News. Available at: https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/homed/garden/122863790/the-community-that-turned-their-red-zone-into-a-food-forest
[xii] Oppert, J. (2020). ‘Online map reveals locations of thousands of Christchurch fruit trees ripe for the picking’, TVNZ. Available at: https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/online-map-reveals-locations-thousands-christchurch-fruit-trees-ripe-picking
[xiv] Regenerate Christchurch. (2020). Ōtakaro Avon River Corridor Regeneration Plan. Available at: https://dpmc.govt.nz/sites/default/files/2019-08/Otakaro%20Avon%20River%20Corridor%20Regeneration%20PlanReducedSize.pdf
[xv] Regenerate Christchurch. (2020). Ōtakaro Avon River Corridor Regeneration Plan. Available at: https://dpmc.govt.nz/sites/default/files/2019-08/Otakaro%20Avon%20River%20Corridor%20Regeneration%20PlanReducedSize.pdf
[xix] Toitū Te Whenua – Land Information New Zealand (2021). ‘Native plants transforming red zone – and the students who plant them’. Available at: https://www.linz.govt.nz/news/2021-09/native-plants-transforming-red-zone-%E2%80%93-and-students-who-plant-them
[xx] Star News (2021). ‘Mass planting event to create riverside forest in Christchurch’. Star News. Available at: https://www.odt.co.nz/star-news/star-lifestyle/star-home-and-gardening/mass-planting-event-create-riverside-forest
[xxi] Regenerate Christchurch. (2020). Ōtakaro Avon River Corridor Regeneration Plan. Available at: https://dpmc.govt.nz/sites/default/files/2019-08/Otakaro%20Avon%20River%20Corridor%20Regeneration%20PlanReducedSize.pdf